The technology used by travel agents to book airline tickets also could be used to get passenger data for the new security system being developed by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
Though the final decision has not been made on how the TSA will gather passenger information for its Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System (CAPPS II) program, the TSA said that using global distribution system technology is a possibility.
“At this point, all options are on the table,” said Brian Turmail, a spokesman for the TSA. “Part of the test with Delta was to find the best way to interface with their system.”
The TSA has been working with Delta Air Lines on the CAPPS II program, which is intended to replace random passenger screenings and is being considered as a standard security technology for the commercial airline industry.
But concern continues to swell about the profiling system, which would conduct extensive background checks on passengers to identify potential terrorists. The program has raised serious questions about privacy rights and travel agents’ ability to protect sensitive client information.
The TSA has said that the program will take passenger data that it gets from the airlines and scan the information through databases, which could range from credit histories to criminal records, to identify terrorists before they can board airplanes.
But some fear that if GDS technology is used, travel agents could be enlisted as the primary collectors of data for the CAPPS II system, simply by the nature of their positions.
The possibility has raised deeper concerns about the extent of the information that a travel agent may be required to give the government.
“There is no legal protection for travel data in the U.S. like there is for legal or medical records,” said Edward Hasbrouck, a travel expert and writer. “Travel agents should be at the forefront of pushing laws to respect the privacy of travelers and the privacy of their clients.”
The U.S. government has tried accessing personal information on foreign visitors from the Passenger Name Records (PNR) maintained by airlines. However, the European Union and other countries have said that such disclosure violates their privacy laws; and use of the system is being disputed.
The PNRs often contain such information as financial data, medical and health-related details, and elaborate travel itineraries.
“People don’t understand the extent of the information travel agents have on their clients,” said Bob Kern, owner of PNR Travel and president of the Southern California Chapter of the American Society of Travel Agents. “We have their lives in there.”
Hasbrouck said CAPPS II ultimately could create more work for agents. For example, if personal information is sent to the TSA, they may find that they have to collect release forms from clients in order to avoid liability issues.
The TSA has said that it will collect only four pieces of information from airlines: a passenger’s name, date of birth, phone number and address. The agency has also said that it only plans to keep information on travelers who are determined to be terrorists, and all other data would be deleted once the plane reaches its destination.
But the Electronic Privacy Information Center recently acquired government documents showing that the TSA has been compiling a “no-fly” list and that people who have been added to the list by mistake have no way of removing their names.
“Those kinds of problems offer the American people a taste of what they can expect from the new CAPPS II airline profiling program,” Barry Steinhardt of the ACLU said in a statement from the privacy information center.
The Association of Corporate Travel Executives has urged the TSA to develop a registered travel program in which frequent travelers could volunteer for extensive background checks to avoid additional scrutiny and such problems of mistaken identity.
Think tanks, privacy groups, legislators and travel agents have endorsed similar proposals.